5 Tips to Stop Over-Treating Low Blood Sugars
Editor’s note: This article does not substitute for medical advice from your healthcare team. Severe low blood sugars—in which you are unable to eat or drink food, are vomiting for any reason, or overdosed on insulin—may require emergency glucagon and/or emergency services.
Sensitive Topic Warning: For some people, binge eating during low blood sugars can be part of—or lead to—other types of disordered eating, including purging, severe calorie restriction, and insulin omission. If you are struggling in any way with your relationship with food, you’re not alone. Here are a few resources to help you better identify and find support for disordered eating as a person with diabetes:
- Eating disorders & diabetes
- Treatment for eating disorders & diabetes
- Diabulimia Recovery: 3 Patients Share Their Story
Low blood sugars can be scary. They can also leave you feeling physically miserable long after you’ve treated a mild-to-moderate low with 15 grams of carbs. One of the most annoying parts of an intense low blood sugar? The desperate cravings for food.
With some low blood sugars, your brain is just begging you to keep eating. It feels like it won’t stop begging. It’s like this nagging, desperate voice coming straight from the cells throughout every part of your brain: EAT MORE! EAT MORE! EAT MORE!
But binge eating during and after a low blood sugar can affect your life in a variety of ways.
If you frequently over-treat or binge during your low blood sugars, you likely also struggle with:
- Feeling guilty and ashamed
- Taking a huge dose of insulin to correct the eventual high blood sugar
- Getting stuck on the blood sugar roller coaster for hours
- Emotional and physical exhaustion
- Level-10 diabetes frustration
- Using lows to binge on foods you’ve deemed “bad” foods
- Weight gain or difficulty losing weight
- Feeling out of control and anxious
- Other disordered eating behaviors: purging, calorie restriction, insulin omission
Despite how desperately your brain is begging you to keep eating, there are things you can do during your next intense low blood sugar to prevent overeating. These strategies helped me break a nasty habit in my early 20s of over-treating lows and I think they could help you, too!
Tip #1: Don’t use yummy food to treat lows.
If you’re reaching for yummy foods like sugary cereals or ice cream when you’re low, you’re simply setting yourself up for major trouble. Who can eat just four spoonfuls of ice cream when they’re low? Not me.
And besides, I’m not going to enjoy the ice cream when I’m low—what a waste of an opportunity to enjoy ice cream!
Instead, choose certain fast-acting carbohydrates that you like just enough—but not the ones you love. Personally, I use things like Skittles, gummy Life Savers, or gummy bears. I’m never going to overeat these types of foods. I just don’t care about them that much.
And then save the ice cream treat for when your blood sugar is stable, you can think rationally about the insulin you need to take for the ice cream, and you can actually enjoy it.
(This also means no longer shaming yourself for eating things like ice cream in general. Diabetes can have a big impact on your relationship with food. I give myself the freedom to eat dessert once a day. This prevents me from feeling deprived and binge-eating those tastier treats.)
Think about types of fast-acting carbs you are less likely to overeat and get a good stash of those items. Keep them in your house, your office, your gym bag, your car—including your partner’s car—and your nightstand.
Then establish a personal rule for yourself: This is what I will use to treat low blood sugars unless they are truly unavailable.
Tip #2: Distract your brain with a harmless item to chew or drink.
There are a few ways you can distract yourself from the cravings that come with low blood sugars. Depending on the situation, here are a few options that work for me:
- Drink a tall glass of ice water: Something about cold, cold water feels really good to my brain. It truly feels like the water is seeping into my skull and cooling down every cell.
- Chew gum: Sometimes simply the act of chewing something, working those jaw muscles, feels really good to the part of my brain begging for more food. It’s almost like I’m tricking my brain into thinking that I’m eating a giant slice of chocolate cake simply because my jaw muscles are working. It may take five sticks of gum, but that’s far better than five bowls of cereal.
- Chew carrots: For the same reasons just mentioned with chewing gum, carrots offer that intense chewing action that seems to calm down the urge to binge. And really, it’s hard to overeat carrots.
Sure, nothing is going to feel as good to your brain as a canyon-sized bowl of Frosted Flakes, but these ideas can help you get through the most intense cravings for more food until they calm down.
Tip #3: Get out of the kitchen—and go sit on your hands.
Don’t hang out in the kitchen when you’re low. Just don’t. Go lie down on the couch or sit at your desk—anywhere but the kitchen.
On the same note, I find it very helpful to keep fast-acting carbs next to my bed so I never have to visit the kitchen for a midnight low. Nothing good can come from visiting the kitchen for low blood sugars in the middle of the night.
Treat the low with your selected fast-acting carbs, then lie down or sit on your hands until the symptoms ease up.
Tip #4: Remind yourself: You are in control of how much food you eat during this low.
I know this one isn’t fun, but it’s true. Overeating during lows is just a habit that has become normal in your life.
You do have control over how much food you eat during a low blood sugar. Yes, your brain is begging for food, but your brain is also still capable of thinking through what you know to be true about low blood sugars:
- It takes at least 15 minutes after eating to start feeling better.
- High-fat foods are going to digest more slowly than fast-acting carbs.
- Your body probably doesn’t need 100 grams of carbs for most lows.
- You’re gonna feel lousy for the rest of the day if you binge during this low.
No one is forcing you to overeat. Not even your brain. Yes, it’s asking you to overeat, but you can say no. You can remind yourself, “I am in charge of how much food I eat during this low.” You can remind yourself of the consequences of binge eating that you’ll inevitably have to deal with for the rest of the day if you do binge.
This is actually a really good thing and a really powerful fact. You decide how much food you eat during your next low.
Tip #5: Remind yourself of the many ways over-treating lows is negatively impacting your day and your life.
Have you ever sat down (when your blood sugar is stable) and really thought about the many ways that the habit of overeating during lows is affecting your life?
Make a list.
- How is it impacting your diabetes?
- Your energy?
- Your weight?
- Your self-esteem?
- Your level of anxiety versus calm?
- Your relationship with food?
- Your relationships with other people?
The more you can dig deep into the consequences of over-treating lows, the more you can remind yourself why it’s just not worth it during your next low.
The bottom line…
Like any new habit, though, these tips require you to choose to try something different, resist the urge to eat the whole box of cereal and force yourself to try a different approach. It isn’t an easy thing to do.
Low blood sugars are one of the worst parts of living with diabetes. They’re scary, dangerous, exhausting, stressful and frustrating. The more we learn how to manage our lows thoughtfully and safely, the more we are showing diabetes on a daily basis who’s boss. Don’t forget: You are the boss!
Editor’s Note: Educational content related to severe hypoglycemia is made possible with support from Lilly, and editorial control rests solely on Beyond Type 2.